Sandwiched neatly between a Burger King and the rolling green cow pastures of Waimea is the Mike Luce Studio (MLS). It’s not really a permanent night club, dancehall, or a performance theatre. It has no exterior sign or even its own Facebook page. It’s sort of a pop-up mini-auditorium that sits in the northwest corner of the majestic Kahilu Theatre.
The concept was conceived back in May 2016 when former Artistic Director Tim Bostock got the idea to convert the theatre’s artist green room/afterschool music rehearsal area into an intimate entertainment center where Big Island musicians could perform. The local recording label, Palm Records, sponsored three successful shows at MLS, but the momentum for future shows faded as did Bostock’s tenure at the Theatre.
Chuck Gessert, Kahilu’s new AD, has brought a breath of fresh air to the windowless room in recent months. First came Bring It!, sort of a monthly pay-to-play open-mic Gong Show-like thingy where local comedians, musicians, and spoken-word artists get five minutes (and no more) of stage time for a $10 entrance fee.
When the Blue Dragon Restaurant closed in late 2016, its regular schedule of nightly entertainment evaporated too. Since he was hired, Gessert said he’s received numerous comments that there’s no local place to dance anymore – Waimea’s two white tablecloth restaurants and one crowded beer joint only allow toe-tapping at their live music events. In response, MLS now features “Kahilu Dance Night” on First Fridays. The performance area that normally seats 50 people comfortably opens up to the adjacent main stage area where there’s plenty of room to dance to a live band. Folks can also enjoy beer and wine.
Last Friday, MLS offered a new opportunity for several local songwriters/musicians to test new material on a live audience. Collectively they’re called the Big Island Songwriters (BIS) and they meet on a regular basis at the Mike Luce Studio (space provided free of charge) to critique each other’s work. Taking it to the next level, since music becomes mere background at other Waimea venues, Gessert gave BIS the green light to do a showcase concert with twelve of their best performers: Matt Binder, Brian Nakasone, Teresa Young, Keoni Caravahlo, Marriane Bacon, Ryan Higgins (Higgs), Rachael Scott, Scott Buchholz, Kristin Lagasse, Ellen Keehan, Robert Savery, and Bub Pratt. Admission was only $5, and the room was full.
The show was broken up into two one-hour segments with groups of five at a time on stage, and each singer/songwriter performed two tunes. The sound was perfect thanks to the Theatre’s Technical Director Paul Buckley, but the odd orange/purple LED lighting coming from below and to the singers’ side gave a strange glow to their faces. It would’ve been nice if they got to sing their two numbers together, got a groove going, instead of having to unplug an instrument and adjust the mic stand for the next performer in the que. Ah, but these are minor issues that can be worked out in future concerts.
The genres performed ranged from folk, country, pop, and few comedic novelty songs – one about pot-infused gummy bears [Marriane Bacon], and the other called “Be Macho As You Want To Be” [Matt Binder]. In the first round, the talented Keoni Caravahlo sang a heartfelt song called “Not Enough.” He said it was inspired about the place where he works – “There’s a lot of people who have a lot money, but they’re alone!” Brian Nakasone reminisced about the Blue Dragon in a partially spoken-word song titled “The Dance Floor Is Smokin’.”
The second round of entertainers offered several top-notch solo performances including the Kona-based bluegrass duo Honey Jar (Kristin Lagasse, banjolele, and Ellen Keehan, guitar). Keehan, who sings lead has a unique voice, and Lagasse compliments her well with warm harmony vocals and that breezy banjolele sound. I really liked Robert Savery’s “Under The Monekypod Tree,” and wanted to hear a full production version complete with percussion. Bub Pratt spiced it up nicely with some unexpected acoustic guitar fills.
Ryan Higgins (Higgs), who organized this showcase concert, is a rapper and a clever songwriter/musician. He gave us “Finding My Way” and “Speak English.” Higgs also has a live side project he does with other local players. It’s called The Listening Room. He debuted it recently at the Waimea Coffee Company with Hawi vocalist Joey Bradley. As the name implies, it’s an opportunity to hear local talent without the clutter of people talking and not paying attention to the music.
Rachael Scott never disappoints and what a treasure it is to have this soulful songstress in our midst. She sang, “What We Do,” admitting it was almost finished – it sounded perfect to my ears.
Whoa! Scott Buchholz! I saw him last year at the Hawaii Songwriting Festival’s open mic competition and was blown away by his original “Without You (I’m Not Really Me).” This year he’s even better, and what stage presence! He demonstrated his superb vocal talent with a song titled “On The Edge Of Something.” Do check him out in Kona where he often plays.
Closing out the loop in the second round was Kukuau Studio’s curator, artiste extraordinaire, and man who doesn’t know how to frown, Bub Pratt. Pratt was heavily involved with the soundtrack for the Big Island indie film Stoke and sang “Falling In” which can also be found on his 2017 CD Oceans & Bridges.
It’s a shame this evening’s concert wasn’t recorded. It would’ve made a great podcast and given the artists further exposure. I suggested the idea to Gessert, Buckley, and several of the artists. It seems to me the event lends itself to something along the lines of what NPR does with its video series Tiny Desk Concerts. If not for the folks who missed the show, but for posterity. Waimea’s got talent. Come listen!
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
All photos: Steve Roby. Featured image: Rachael Scott